When it comes to introducing new products, you have three options:
- Invent something completely new
- Do what has been done before but charge less for it
- Do what has been done before but execute it better than anyone else
In the world of food start-ups, it’s that last strategy that appears to be the order of the day. I’ve recently begun to notice a new crop of restaurants that focus exclusively—almost to the point of obsession—on a single product, ingredient, dish, or theme, and offer a zillion different variations on that one thing.
To be sure, specializing in a single product is hardly a new idea: Dunkin' Donuts has been around since 1950, Baskin & Robbins since 1945, pizza shops it seems like forever, and the current cupcake craze is endemic worldwide. All take one beloved food item, and vary the heck out of it.
But to win at this game now—whether or not you’re in the food business—you’ve got to be able to do several things well:
- Offer great products and a great selection. If you can offer something not offered anywhere else, so much the better.
- Build a physical and/or online environment that is fun and that encourages exploration and a sense of discovery.
- Educate consumers as to the nuances of your variations, either through very knowledgeable sales people, or great explanations on a website.
- Give customers the ability to try on, taste, and experience the diversity you offer.
Here are some of my favorite food businesses innovating on a theme:
Peanut Butter & Co. Sandwich Shop in New York City offers a menu of no less than 20 different peanut butter-themed sandwiches, such as The Heat Is On (spicy peanut butter, grilled chicken, and pineapple jam) and The Elvis (peanut butter, bananas, honey—bacon is optional).
The key menu item at S’mac in Manhattan and homeroom in Oakland, CA, is that other iconic American speciality: macaroni and cheese. But at S’mac you’ll find a slew of internationally themed dishes (Cajan and Masala, for example), and homeroom boasts quirky variations like Trailer Mac (mac and cheese with gourmet hotdog and crushed potato chips).
Rice to Riches in Manhattan focuses exclusively on rice puddings packed in original, colorful containers that are in themselves innovative. Flavors are original too, with clever names like “Fluent in French Toast,” “Possessed by Espresso Chocolate Chip,” and “Old Fashioned Romance.”
Dolce Vizio (“delicious vice” in Italian), which opened not long ago on Hudson Street in Manhattan, serves only Tiramisu in varieties you’ve never heard of: Pineapple Granola, Orange Espresso, Nutella, etc.
Flex Mussels, also in Manhattan, offers mussels from Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia, prepared 23 different ways, including Thai style, Bombay with curry, and Mexican with chorizo and chipotle.
The Meatball Shop (tagline: “We Make Balls”) based in Brooklyn with three different locations serves different types of meatballs, including pork, vegetarian, and chicken, with different sauce options.
Churros are the specialty at Xooro in Santa Monica, CA. It’s the very indulgent fillings and dips that make them special. For example, the Maple Bacon has maple crème filling, white frosting, and the whole thing is rolled in bacon bits.
Want to try innovations on a theme?
Success partly depends on whether your customers view the products as short-term novelties; the other key factor is how well you can execute the shopping experience.
First, make sure you have genuinely good products, so people long for more. Then focus on creating a buying experience that supports a sense of adventure (see the websites of the shops above if you can't visit them in person). You want to encourage customers to become experts in your products so they’ll in turn teach others about them.
What great innovations on a theme have you seen?